Early science learning with a virtual tutor through multimedia explanations and feedback on spoken questions

  • Jarkko HautalaEmail author
  • Doris Luft Baker
  • Aleksi Keurulainen
  • Miia Ronimus
  • Ulla Richardson
  • Ronald Cole
Development Article


The purpose of this pilot study with a within-subject design was to gain a deeper understanding about the promise and restrictions of a virtual tutoring system designed to teach science to first grade students in Finland. Participants were 61 students who received six tutoring science sessions of approximately 20 min each. Sessions consisted of a sequence of narrated multimedia science presentations during which a virtual tutor explained science phenomena displayed in pictures. Narrated science explanations were followed by one or more multiple choice questions with immediate feedback about students’ choices and a possible second attempt, during which students reached 97% accuracy. A pretest and posttest was administered to assess students’ ability to reason about the science and to transfer knowledge to new contexts. Results indicated significantly greater improvement in the understanding of the science concepts taught during the tutoring sessions, relative to the concepts that were not taught. Results from the surveys administered to teachers and students indicated that the program was well received. Detailed analysis of student error responses provided a deeper understanding about the complex interplay between students’ prior knowledge, the way topics were taught in the multimedia lessons, and the way learning was assessed. Findings from the quantitative and qualitative analyses are discussed in the context of designing high quality lessons delivered through a virtual tutoring system.



The authors would like to thank Sakke Hintsala and Maija Koikkalainen for their work in the data gathering phase.


This study was part of the Science Across Virtual Institutions (SAVI; project funded by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Academy of Finland. The research reported here was supported by the Academy of Finland through Grant 269102 to the Agora Center, University of Jyväskylä, Institute of Education Sciences, the U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305B070008, and the National Science Foundation through Grants DRL 0733323 to Boulder Language Technologies, with a subcontract to Southern Methodist University, and through Grant DRL 0733322 to the University of Colorado at Boulder. The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute, the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, or the Academy of Finland.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures in this study were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Association for Educational Communications and Technology 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Applied Language Studies, Department of PsychologyUniversity of JyväskyläJyväskyläFinland
  2. 2.Department of Teaching & LearningSouthern Methodist UniversityDallasUSA
  3. 3.Niilo Mäki InstituteJyväskyläFinland
  4. 4.Center for Applied Language StudiesUniversity of JyväskyläJyväskyläFinland
  5. 5.Boulder Learning Inc.BoulderUSA
  6. 6.Qvantel Ltd.JyväskyläFinland

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